Marriage Story – London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review

Take an entire box of tissues with you, would be my advice for preparing to watch Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Even that advice would not have prepared me sufficiently to watch the quiet devastation that Marriage Story unravels. By now, you will know that its premise concerns a divorcing couple, which has been a subject matter of earlier Hollywood films such as Kramer Vs Kramer and The War of the Roses but the sheer rawness of Marriage Story is unparalleled and I truly felt heartbroken by its ending.

That is not to say that the entire film is depressing, far from it. There are many comedic moments in Marriage Story that will make you laugh from the sheer joy and wit on display and this is truly where Marriage Story captivates. We are enticed by its protagonists, Nicole and Charlie, from the outset by voiceovers where they reveal, during a therapy session, the strengths they admire in each other. This is enhanced by smooth intercuts demonstrating their partner undertaking those admired qualities, which is such a tender expression of direction by Baumbach. The emotion conveyed at such moments is so raw, by use of extreme close ups, but endearing that you may even wonder why a divorce between the couple is being considered. Plus, there is the added complication of a young son, who is, for the most part, oblivious to his parents’ strife.

However, matters escalate between the couple as they attempt to legalise their separation and it is during such moments that your heart may be torn. Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver deliver such powerful performances meaning that their characters seem likeable and relatable despite inexplicably filing for divorce. As the film slowly unfolds it becomes clear that there are a multitude of reasons creating such tension between the couple who, on the face of it, seemed so well-matched; Charlie is a theatre director and Nicole is an actress. Randy Newman’s evocative score also ramps up the emotional impact and adds a layer of devastation in itself!

The growing distance between the couple, which is illustrated by a wide angle lens as they sit apart, is also matched geographically. Nicole and Charlie express separate desires to live in different states which literally creates a huge gulf in their relationship as the locations are on the East Coast and West Coast respectively. As such, their different intentions are revealed and it becomes obvious that stifled desire is finally being addressed. The divorce and the court room provide a forum for such desire to be unleashed in ways that neither character anticipated with secrets unearthed, which may be a symptom of divorce proceedings that many can relate to. Plus, the laws of each state differ resulting in some ruthless wrangling for property with cut throat lawyers engaged.

Laura Dern and Scarlet Johansson in Marriage Story
Laura Dern and Scarlet Johansson in Marriage Story

Laura Dern, as one of such lawyers, is truly in her element as Nora Fanshaw as she undertakes the relevant theatrics required to secure the best deal for her client, Nicole. Ray Liotta also makes a cameo as the legal counterpart acting for Charlie. The legal process almost seems to be a mise-en-abîme as Nicole and Charlie unwittingly adopt roles to retaliate as matters become messier. These scenes are particularly poignant given that we, as the audience, were privy to those earlier discussions between Nicole and Charlie where they promised to resolve their marital difficulties amicably without being aggressive.

Marriage Story demonstrates those humane aspects of the changing dynamics that divorce brings to all as those familiar structures disintegrate and suddenly a new life must be forged and a new identity carved. We can resonate with the peripheral characters such as Nicole’s family members, who provide very witty performances, and the acting troupe who understandably feel torn between their loyalties, as we do too!

Marriage Story, thankfully, provides a balanced account of both of the characters without judgement and so we are not forced to choose a side. Even during ‘that scene’ where all of the emotions escalate, Nicole and Charlie are as surprised as we are by the character transformations, with increased viciousness and vitriol on display, in a truly heart wrenching scene. I was still rooting for the couple by that stage, remembering earlier tender scenes of them lying on the bed holding their son, which is testament to the effective, emotional method by which Baumbach draws us into their daily lives.

Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie in Marriage Story
Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie in Marriage Story

Shattered illusions, unfulfilled ambitions and broken promises are all laid bare in Marriage Story creating that deliberate discomfort and the notion that sometimes, sadly, love just is not enough. It is a difficult message to accept particularly when the cinematography is so alluring. At least some of the scenes are intercut with some musical numbers to provide light relief – yes, it’s true, Adam Driver can sing! There are also a few more mise-en-abîme scenes throughout with theatre rehearsals which equally provide useful distractions for both ourselves as the audience and the divorcing couple.

Perhaps this tale in Marriage Story is extremely personal to Baumbach, who is divorced from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh with whom a child is shared. Possibly, similar to La La Land, the relationship between the protagonists is secondary to their love of theatre and their love for Hollywood and is therefore a casualty of such devotion. Potentially, Marriage Story also illustrates that belief that contentment in life involves truly knowing ourselves and our needs and having your own agency.

Above all, Marriage Story is certainly effective in its ability to raise many questions about our own actions within similar circumstances. Indeed, Marriage Story’s sheer emotional force and superb acting means that it is likely to remain in my memory for some time to come as one of my favourite films from 2019’s London Film Festival.

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